When Joel Houston arrived at the dilapidated house in a remote part of the Scottish Highlands, for the first time in a while, something just felt right.
“I see this beautiful kind of Scottish farmhouse-type deal with rubble everywhere and windows knocked out and walls torn down,” he remembers. “I just felt like I got a picture of what was happening.”
It was late 2017, and just months before, he and his Hillsong United bandmates had wrapped another stadium worship tour in promotion of their chart-topping album Wonder. The band got back on their tour bus one night, and the mood seemed … off.
“I just looked at everybody’s faces, and I said, ‘You know what? Maybe we should just take some time off,’” he remembers.
“We all looked at each other and nodded our heads,” says fellow singer Jonathon Douglass (who goes by JD).
Houston remembers the moment well. “Everybody kind of started crying,” he says. After years of touring, most of the band was burned out and wanted to spend time with their families.
Taya Gaukrodger, one of United’s primary vocalists, remembers it vividly, too. “I remember I started crying because I was just kind of craving time at home,” she says. “I opened my hands, put my face in my hands, and I just was like, ‘I need to tell you these are happy tears.’”
A husband and father himself, Houston wanted to go home and take a break too, but that wasn’t his only motive. There was something bothering him.
Like everyone else in the group, he was tired and in need of an extended time off the road. But what he was experiencing wasn’t just burnout.
“I just found myself in a place where, let’s be real, I kind of lost the wonder,” Houston remembers.
The man who’d written songs sung by millions of people around the world was losing sight of what had inspired him in the first place. It’s still difficult for him to talk about.
“I’d spent the previous couple years trying to write myself out of a certain place that was a little confusing for me,” he says before pausing. “I don’t know what other words to put on it.”
Before the band’s extended break, Houston had written a book. After sending a draft to his publishers, he remembers being at home in New York City when the edits came back in the mail. It should have been an exciting moment.
“I never opened them,” he says.
Houston had questions about his future, his band and even his faith. Where does the person a generation has turned to for worship go when he’s no longer feeling inspired? Who does a leader ask when he has questions about faith? Houston needed help.
That’s what led him to that rundown farmhouse in the Scottish countryside.
He’d taken the invitation of a friend to go to Scotland, get away from things and spend some time talking through his struggles. Arriving at the farmhouse was a moment of revelation.
“I saw something inspiring for the first time given the season that I was in, in that moment,” he says. “I felt like I got a picture of my life.”
On the outside, the house was rundown, worn by weather and time. It was a shell of what it had once been. But if you looked hard enough, you could see that with a little work and care, it could be restored. It could, for all Houston knew, be even more stunning than the place it’d been before.
“Sometimes, if you’re going to create something beautiful, you’ve got to get through the process of reconstruction,” Houston says. “And that involves deconstruction and all the rest of it.”
ALL THE REST OF IT
It’s hard to overstate the influence Hillsong United has had since the release of their first album two decades ago. Yes, they’ve sold millions of albums, racked up more than a billion streams and consistently sell out stadiums around the world. But the real measure of their impact isn’t in traditional music industry metrics. It’s in how many people sing songs that Houston and his bandmates have written in church services every single week.
A quick recap: United started as the youth ministry band of Australia-based megachurch Hillsong in the late ’90s. Joel Houston—whose parents Brian and Bobbie are the founders and pastors of the church—has been a part of the band since the beginning, and he officially took over as its leader in 2003.
At the time, the church was best known for their primary band, Hillsong Worship. Led by Darlene Zschech, their music became a global church fixture with mega-hits like “Shout to the Lord,” a song that was sung in more than 30 million churches.
“I just found myself in a place where, let’s be real, I kind of lost the wonder.”
Initially, United’s live albums were packaged with Hillsong Worship albums, and starting in 1999, they began releasing annual live albums that featured rotating line-ups of singers around Houston.
But something shifted in 2007 with the release of their first studio album, All of the Above. Not only did it hit the top spot on the Christian charts, it climbed all the way to the No. 60 spot on the Billboard Top 200 chart.
Not long after, Houston and the rest of United’s influence began to outpace the parent band. The song “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” from 2013’s Zion went double platinum and sat at the top of the Billboard Hot Christian Songs chart for a record 61 weeks.
Like other songs from United, “Oceans” is a Sunday worship music staple—but even that only scratches the surface of their church service influence.
Hillsong Church has a policy that says “the rights connected to having a band play our songs in a worship service is exempt from live performance licensing.” Their policy also states, “Our songs and resources are created with the express purpose of enhancing worship, therefore, you are welcome to use our songs, CDs, DVDs and Split Tracks as part of your services with our blessing.”
That means any church, anywhere in the world, can play songs from a Hillsong band free of charge—and millions do every Sunday morning.
Today, the church has four primary acts: Hillsong Worship, Hillsong United, Hillsong Young & Free (geared toward Gen Z listeners) and Hillsong Kids. However, it’s United that consistently tops global music charts and sells out stadium worship concerts around the globe. And at the center of it all is 39-year-old Houston.
He’s been a part of United since he was a teenager, so maybe it’s not surprising that the weight of influencing the global culture of worship music was taking a toll on him. Maybe it’s even understandable.
“For me, the tension of always trying to play that balance between being somebody people look up to, and the whole time, trying to do this in a way where you’re trying to draw people’s attention toward God, can be a really difficult process at times to find the balance in,” Houston says. “I thought I’d dealt with that stuff when I was 19; and I thought I’d dealt with it when I was 25; and I thought I’d dealt with it when I was 31. And I’ve got to this period of like, ‘Man, this is still a thing?’”
Back in 2017, the pressure of being a face of a global worship movement—while still dealing with the questions many Christians face as they grow in their faith—finally hit a breaking point when Houston left for the rundown cabin in Scotland.
“At the time, I just felt this giant hole when it came to inspiration,” he says. “I still felt like I loved God. I was digging deep into the things of God, but when it came to stuff that had naturally driven me—which is the creative and ideas of the future, and wrestling with that kind of dissatisfaction that’s the driving force toward creating new things—I hadn’t felt it for a while. I just felt empty.”
“At the time, I just felt this giant hole when it came to inspiration.” –Joel Houston
His friend—the one who invited him to Scotland—gave him some advice: Lean into the uncertainty and do what you’ve always done. Write music.
“He said, ‘God set you up for this season and every season like it. He’s given you the gifts, the ammunition, to try to get your way out of this,’” Houston says. “ I was like, ‘OK, those things are a story and metaphor, songs and writings—the very things that you do naturally that God has given you—that’s going to help you see through to the other side.”
He got up in the middle of the darkest crisis of faith he’d ever experienced, went outside in the cold Scotland air, and started writing a song.
ALL THINGS NEW
In the months that followed his time in Scotland, Houston did the one thing he felt like would get him out of his spiritual rut: He continued to write music. Eventually, after more than a year away from the band, he went to visit Hillsong in Sydney where he met up with the rest of the group.
For two weeks, they hung out and played through the dozens of new songs together, trying to decide which ones would make their next album.
Gaukrodger remembers hearing the new songs for the first time. “I was like, ‘This is so raw; it’s unpolished; it’s very real,’” she says. “We’re going back to the roots of United and back to what it was about.”
“I don’t think any one of us had a plan of how this was going to look or how this was going to turn out.”
Douglass says, “I think the fruit of that break is heard and felt in the songs.”
Unlike their recent releases, this would not be a polished studio album. This would be a live worship album in front of the people who’d been there from the beginning—since before the stadiums and platinum awards—the people who’d been with Houston before and during his season of doubt.
There—not in front of a huge stadium of fans, but a church full of worshippers—Hillsong United began to sing. And to hear Houston tell it, something strange happened. The same group of musicians who’d sat on a bus weeping together in exhaustion months before were now singing like they hadn’t in a long time.
“It felt like we were going back to the root of what United came out of,” Gaukrodger says. “Which was unpolished. People passionate about getting together with one accord of worshipping Jesus and seeing people impacted by the presence.”
“It just felt like kind of coming full circle,” Houston says. “Like a big reset, a giant reset.”
It didn’t feel like the end. It felt like the beginning of something new.
In the middle of the worship service, back in the city where it all started, Houston had a revelation.
“I remember basically in the middle of this night we were singing these songs and the crowd was singing, and it just dawned on me, what God has done in a year,” Houston remembers. “It was basically 12 months to the day that we recorded it that I was in Scotland at rock bottom. And the very songs that started there were here being kind of recorded in this really special setting for us.”
This summer, Hillsong United will strike out in what could possibly be their last major world tour—at the very least, it will be the last time with the current version of United. They’ll be singing songs from a brand-new album People. And though in some ways, things feel as pure and as passionate as they did back at the very beginning, there will be other ways in which this is uncharted territory for the band.
“I don’t think any one of us had a plan of how this was going to look or how this was going to turn out,” Gaukrodger says.
And now that uncertainty is something Houston is OK with.
“The big hope for United in the future is that we find the means for it to open up opportunity for others in the same space,” Houston says. “What I mean by that is, it’s not limited to—certainly not me—or just the few people who represent it now. It could become something that is more embracing of a whole lot of other people.”
They are going out with a new collection of songs that are unlike anything they’ve ever sung. They aren’t songs written at the peak of personal successes or spiritual highs. These are songs written in the valley.
These are songs about the grace that sustains not just when God seems near, but when He feels far away.
Houston can see the ways God used United to put a voice to things that a generation was feeling, but now he also sees how others are coming after him to lead the Church into new places he’d never imagined.
“I’ve talked to these 15-year-old kids, and they just think differently about everything,” he says. “Hopefully, they’re going to take a small leap out of whatever they’ve seen in us.” But he hopes they’ll also understand that there’s no limit.
“I pray that we always see the beauty in the Church for all its imperfections,” he says. “But they break all the right rules and smash all the stereotypes and change the way people think inside the Church,” Houston says.
Despite the season of doubt and the state of things in the world, Houston has hope that the thing United has helped fuel will inspire a new kind of worship movement. One that thinks outside the boxes to which the Church has constrained itself.
“God is doing something new in us all, and that’s not exclusive for Hillsong United,” says Douglass. “It’s something we believe God is doing around the world and is for anyone who wants to be a part of it.”
When asked if he’s optimistic about the future of the Church, Houston says, “I absolutely am. Especially the mystic in me.”
The old Joel wanted certainty. He wanted to know what would come next. He wanted to understand how God worked.
Now he’s learned to be content understanding how God is. He doesn’t need to understand why grace exists, he just needs to recognize that it does.
“Grace is so nonsensical it doesn’t play into the facts, the narrative or the truth as we see it,” he says.
“Even the way music works, the resolve is only as good as the tension.”